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The Wrecking Crew: Looking Back At The History Of Professional Studio Musicians

by Doc Coyle
music & audio

the wrecking crew

What is “The Wrecking Crew”? It is the not-so-secret nickname for an elite group of studio musicians who served as the backing band for countless famous artists like Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, The Monkees, Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond, The Mama and the Papas, and many more throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. It is also the name of a 2008 documentary detailing the history of these mysterious men and women.

Why is their story relevant for the CreativeLive readers? For professional musicians and musicians aspiring to be professionals, I believe that it’s paramount to understand the history of this craft. Although the documentary is not new, there are some fascinating lessons and compelling takeaways within this film.

As these musicians usually went uncredited in the official liner notes of singles and albums for which they performed, the general public mostly assumed that groups were performing on their own albums. Sometimes the band themselves thought they were playing on their own album just to be told they weren’t by the producer or band leader. There is an anecdote from the doc where the guitar player from The Monkees shows up to the studio with his guitar, ready to rock. Apparently, he was the last to know that The Monkees were not a “real” band. Although they were expensive, the wrecking crew being able to bang out a track out in 1-2 takes meant the artist ultimately saved money on studio time and analog tape (which were both also very expensive) compared to the 30 takes it would have taken the real band to nail the song.

The most important takeaway for me is how things have come full circle in regards to recording, especially in the pop world. The wrecking crew was just the programmed drums or midi keyboards of their day. Many people have this warm and fuzzy notion of the good old days when the artists were “real” and not shallow, Photoshopped and auto-tuned like the shitty pop stars of today. While there is some truth to that, the era they are really talking about is a golden period of time when bands decided to become more credible, write their own songs, play their own instruments on recordings, and the idea of the full-length album became a creative odyssey. This movement essentially put the wrecking crew out of business.

This period started in the late 60’s with the ironically wrecking crew performed, but artistically transcendent Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, released in 1966. The ambition of Pet Sounds inspired The Beatles to make Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Coupled with Bob Dylan introducing the band to marijuana and challenging their lyrical profundity, The Beatles evolution from boy-band, quasi-cover act to psychedelic, prog adventurers changed the game. The floodgates opened to more authentic and artistically driven popular music. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Queen, Black Sabbath, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder all created popular music, but there was sense that ground was being broken and undiscovered creative territory was being breached with every subsequent classic release.

This ethos seemed to hold relatively strong for several decades despite the 80’s attachment to glam and glitter. I would say the converse bookend to this golden era has to be the early 2000’s, which saw the peak of albums sales in US history, the dominance of shiny pop acts like Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and ‘N Sync, and the emergence of illegal internet downloading. Since that point, we’ve seen record sales drop virtually every year, and pop music reverting more back to its roots: propped up beautiful people with handlers, managers, songwriters, producers, trainers, nutritionists, stylists, make up artists, publicists, social media consultants, choreographers, back up dancers, lip injections, boob implants, butt implants, liposuction, steroids, and holograms.

Whether you find that bothersome or not, it’s important to understand that the modern record industry started with single peddling, cute youngsters who rarely wrote their own songs and often didn’t play on their records. You can make a strong argument that singers were much better back in the day; Frank Sinatra, Jackie Wilson, and Elvis Presley did sing on their albums without the aid of auto-tune, cut-and-paste, and digital manipulation of any kind. But in many ways, the pop stars of today are not any worse than the pop stars of the 1950’s.

This is not a means to forgive the shortcomings of modern pop music, but this is why knowing your history is important. Sometimes the good old days weren’t as good as you remember, and being in the habit of constantly shitting on anything new is a small-minded, pre-packaged way of thinking. I often write about modernity’s lackluster methodology, so I have to call it the other way when the evidence bears newfound truth.

To get back to the wrecking crew, I highly recommend that any musician watch this documentary that sees his or herself taking the professional path as a studio player or hired live performer. As I know from firsthand experience, it is one thing to get up every night and nail tunes you wrote with your buddies. But to be able to go into a situation playing music you didn’t write with different musicians, different styles, and be expected to do it right without zero hand-holding is a whole other ball game. Not everyone is built for it.

Jason Hook, the lead guitarist of Five Finger Death Punch, is producing a documentary entitled Hired Gun, which covers this exact area of the music industry. Hook culled inspiration from is own career as he has done hired gun stints with the Bulletboys, Hilary Duff, Alice Cooper, and Vince Neil. I am really looking forward to it.

As someone who has made the transition from building a career with my own band to flirting with work as a hired gun, I can say it’s not easy. You don’t have the same sentimental and emotional attachment to the work and the music. The camaraderie can be fleeting and unstable. You constantly have to take an honest look at your abilities: know what you can and can’t do, and make sure you are constantly improving. I am about to turn 35, and I question how much looks and age have to do with landing certain gigs (the answer is A LOT). It’s similar to searching for work in any competitive and cutthroat field. Being in the right place and right time is often half the battle. Knowing the right people and luck will determine quite a bit, but dependable, skilled, prepared, professional, and congenial people usually land the job.

Godspeed.

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Doc Coyle

Ex God Forbid guitar player. Songwriter. Blogger. Know-It-All. Non-conformist. NY Knicks fan. Coffee enthusiast. Agnostic.